Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys

Walking past the Royal Ontario Museum on Thursday, it occurred to me how accustomed I have grown to the Lee-Chin Crystal. So accustomed that surely it has always stood there, but of course I know otherwise. On Thursday it was raining but I stopped a moment anyway and tried to reconstruct the museum I used to walk by daily when I lived in the neighbourhood nearly ten years ago-- the Terrace Galleries, knocked down for the Crystal after just 25 years of service. Oh the solidity of the city is most deceptive. But even though the streetscape has changed and I'm a decade away from that girl I used to be, when I fix my mind just right I can go back there. And so the city's fluidity is also most deceptive, isn't it? In the midst of constant change, the same moments seem to happen over and over again.

Helen Humphreys considers this dichotomy in The Frozen Thames, a book which she terms as "a long meditation on the nature of ice". And indeed there is no better image than ice to encapsulate such flux and fixity. The Thames freezing is a perfect example of an extraordinary moment in time, having occurred just forty times in its history and Humphreys links these moments together in this small beautiful book, which is distinguished both by content and design.

The Frozen Thames comprises forty "vignettes", one for each time the river froze from 1142 to 1895. From a man struggling to persuade his oxen to cross the ice to the wife of a publican who wakes up to find her house collapsing, these stories tell of people and stories both ordinary and otherwise. Of the spell that is cast over a city when something extraordinary happens, of the river's centrality to London life. Humphreys writes of The Frost Fairs which were held for hundreds of years, when those who relied upon the river for their livelihood would make use of the ice for money instead. The bonfires, fortune tellers, cannons, skating, and the pig roasts.

That the voice stays the same throughout the book serves a purpose: a constancy, analogous to the river itself, as the backdrop changes. Various plagues descend, Kings are beheaded, power shifts hands, and still the wonder of the ice remains. Humphreys allows her reader to engage in this wonderment, presenting small moments so vividly: I never supposed an oxen's step could be this compelling. And that such an ending could be so devastating: "...the nature of the river had been changed by the destruction of the old London Bridge and the building, in 1831, of the new one.... The new bridge did not work as a dam, the way the old bridge had, and the Thames would never, will never, freeze solid in the heart of London again."